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Originally published December 25, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified December 25, 2008 at 12:19 AM

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Acts of generosity kindle true Christmas spirit

In the midst of the worst financial crisis the country has seen in decades, there are stories of remarkable grace and compassion. This Christmas, pastors are pointing to individual acts of kindness, with people donating grocery gift cards to others or simply offering companionship. They say that though overall giving to their church might be down, donations to programs that help the needy have typically gone up.

Seattle Times religion reporter

It was such a simple thing: a stove.

But in that stove, the Rev. Joan Henjum saw a Christmas story.

The Seattle church and homeless shelter that Henjum helps to run needed a new cookstove. A man who had placed an ad hoping to sell his stove agreed to donate it instead — he even helped the women at Mary's Place/Church of Mary Magdalene get rid of their old, broken stove and put the new one in.

Only later did the women learn their benefactor was himself out of work; the construction company he'd owned had recently gone under.

The man could have focused on what he didn't have, Henjum says, "but he had a stove that he was willing to give to us. He focused on what he could give."

Christmas is a time for love and generosity, a reminder to Christians that God so loved the world that he sent his son to Earth to live and die as a human being.

"We feel God has been incredibly generous to us," said Senior Pastor Jonathan Alexander, of Northshore Baptist Church in Bothell. "So it's part of our responsibility to be generous."

And in the midst of the country's worst financial crisis in decades, there are stories of remarkable grace and compassion.

Pastors are noting individual acts of kindness, with people donating grocery gift cards to others or simply offering companionship.

While overall giving to their church might be down, they say, donations to programs that help the needy typically have increased.

"We need to focus on what we do have, and the blessings we have," Henjum said. "One of the main things we do have is each other. And giving when we can give."

Parishioners hit hard

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In his Christmas homily, the Rev. Phillip Bloom at Holy Family Catholic Church in White Center plans to talk about identifying with Jesus — especially with his humility, poverty and solidarity with the poor.

After all, Bloom said, Jesus came in the form of a defenseless child to a poor family.

Parishioners at Holy Family have been hit hard. About 30 families are out of work, and many others are afraid of losing their jobs. Overall giving to the parish is down about 10 percent from last year.

Yet, Bloom said he keeps hearing stories like these:

One parishioner said he would start giving $200 a month to the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, which helps the poor.

Another man from a neighboring parish who heard that Holy Family gives out grocery gift certificates to needy families donated 10 such cards, although he had just lost about $30,000 in his young son's college fund. That man told Bloom that other people were suffering more than his family was, the priest said.

At Quest Church in Interbay, about 10 percent of members have lost their jobs in the last quarter, said Pastor Eugene Cho. Despite that, members recently raised about $50,000 in three weeks, half of which they gave to local food banks, the other half to be used for church members going through hard times.

The church has been challenging members to think in creative ways about helping others. It recently co-sponsored a benefit concert, held at the church's cafe, for a homeless encampment.

One church couple who love to cook began hosting group dinners at their home, buying and preparing the food and asking guests to contribute about $50 a person to a local charity. Their first two dinners raised $1,700 for two local food banks.

Jack Chen, who cooks the meals with his wife, La Verne Chen, said they figured they could do something small — "not necessarily something that would change the world, but simple, that we would have fun and enjoy doing anyway."

Honduras' poor

At Washington Cathedral in Redmond, donations have increased for the church's work with the poor in Honduras.

Church members see that work as a way of embodying God's love, likening it to the Christmas story where the shepherds spread the good news of Jesus' birth.

It's "spreading the good news of deeper values at work even in hard times," said Senior Pastor Tim White, who, with his wife, gave their entire personal Christmas gift fund to help a couple that was going to lose their home.

Back at Mary's Place, financial contributions are down 25 percent this year. The day shelter and church are struggling. But donations of clothing, quilts, blankets and toiletries are up. And Henjum tells the women at the shelter to focus on and share what they do have — whether it's words of encouragement or tips on where to go for a hot meal.

Christmas is a yearly reminder "that God is indeed present in our world, in our lives," Henjum said. "At Christmas time, we can remember and cherish it and let it happen in us — that the spirit of love is born in us if we let it in."

Times staff reporter Marc Ramirez contributed. Janet I. Tu: 206-464-2272

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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